Regardless of whether the Los Angeles Lakers win every game remaining on their 2013-14 schedule, they’re poised to finish with the worst record in franchise history since moving to L.A. for the 1960-61 season.
Simultaneously, Kobe Bryant has had the most turbulent campaign of his 18-year career. His frustrations came to a tipping point in March when he said, “This is not what we stand for, this is not what we play for,” per the Los Angeles Times’ Mike Bresnahan.
Bryant’s injury woes are a huge reason for the Lakers’ abysmal stretch of losing, but numerous events fell into place that drastically altered the course of the NBA’s storied franchise.
Their outlook went from playoff contender to bottom-feeder in the blink of an eye, and now the organization will be lucky to compete during the twilight of Bryant’s legendary career.
But how exactly did Purple and Gold get to this point in the first place? Not surprisingly, the issues run deep. In fact, they date back to a time before the 2013-14 season had even started.
Dwight Howard’s Departure
Although Lakers fans have done their best to distance themselves from the enigma that was Dwight Howard's one-year stay in L.A., deep down they should be able to admit that the franchise desperately needed to re-sign him.
In addition to launching a full-blown campaign (complete with billboards) to entice the former three-time Defensive Player of the Year into staying, general manager Mitch Kupchak hammered home the importance of his return by saying, “He’s our future.”
Lakers fans know the rest of the story. D12 signed with the Houston Rockets for less money—a nearly unprecedented move, but a smart decision from a basketball standpoint given Bryant’s Achilles injury.
By losing the talented big man and getting nothing in return, the Lakers had to rely on aging veterans—Bryant, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol—for wins.
That turned out to be a recipe for disaster. Injuries have held each guy back, which was to be expected.
Steve Nash’s Injury Woes
Nerve root irritation in Nash’s back has prevented him from playing in all but 15 games during his second year as a Laker, which has crumbled the very vision L.A.’s front office had put into play.
Lakers’ management passed on the prospect of bringing back Phil Jackson to coach in favor of hiring offensive guru Mike D’Antoni. It did so because of D'Antoni's dynamic with the Canadian point guard.
Nash won back-to-back MVP awards under Mike D with the Phoenix Suns in 2004-05 and 2005-06. His fast-paced, hyper-offensive teams were a joy to watch and were arguably just a few bad breaks away from winning the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Unfortunately for Nash—and D’Antoni’s current job security—the 40-year-old’s battle with Father Time has been truly ugly.
Instead of having Nash, who has still shown flashes of All-Star-caliber play when healthy, D’Antoni has been left with Steve Blake (traded), Jordan Farmar (injury-riddled) and Kendall Marshall (didn’t have an NBA job at the start of the season).
D'Antoni's offensive system is a delicate piece of machinery. Without the precise parts, it fails to run at optimum efficiency.
The Lakers needed Nash to orchestrate D’Antoni’s offense, and he simply hasn’t been available to do so.
Kobe Bryant’s Setback
Prior to the 2013-14 season, “The Black Mamba” was recuperating from an Achilles tear he suffered last April. It was a debilitating injury, to be sure—especially for a 35-year-old with numerous miles on the odometer—but we were talking about Kobe Bean Bryant.
His virtually unmatched work ethic and resume as a proven champion was sure to be enough to overcome this devastating blow, right?
Well, a valiant return wasn’t meant to be. Bryant played just six games after his return on Dec. 8 against the Toronto Raptors. He averaged 13.8 points, 6.3 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 5.7 turnovers per game while shooting 42.5 percent from the field and a woeful 18.8 percent from three-point range, before succumbing to a fractured lateral tibial plateau in his left knee against the Memphis Grizzlies on Dec. 17.
He’s still the future of the franchise after signing a two-year, $48.5 million extension in November—but therein lies the problem.
There are serious doubts that Bryant can return as a bona fide alpha dog. Heck, he may never be a suitable No. 2 option on a championship-caliber team again. He will be 36 years old by the start of 2014-15 after all.
Frankly, the Lakers were doomed long before Nash’s injury woes and Bryant’s setback. Howard’s departure for greener pastures solidified their standing as a team in limbo, and unless the front office makes miraculous decisions during the offseason, the storied franchise will be poised to struggle once again.